Harlem church accuses real estate firm of “Old Testament Vengeance” in $20M lawsuit

Azimuth founder describes suit as “frivolous” and “without merit”

St. Luke Baptist Church at 1916 Park Avenue (Credit: Google Maps and iStock)
St. Luke Baptist Church at 1916 Park Avenue (Credit: Google Maps and iStock)

UPDATED, 10:55 p.m. August 8: A historic Harlem church is seeking $20 million from a real estate developer it accuses of fraud in a lawsuit filled with biblical references.

St. Luke Baptist Church has filed suit against Azimuth Development and its founder Guido Subotovsky, claiming that a deal it made with the development company to construct a residential building on its land was “wrought with fraud, misrepresentations and misconduct” and that it took advantage of the church’s “unsuspecting nature and charitable parishioners.”

Subotovsky described St. Luke’s lawsuit as “without merit” and said he was very confused about why they decided to file it.

Azimuth and St. Luke reached a deal in 2014 that provided for the demolition of the original St. Luke church and the construction of a new church, according to the lawsuit. The contract stipulated that work on the new church should be done by February 2017 and that St. Luke was entitled to payments of $20,833 for each month Azimuth went beyond the completion date, the suit says.

When the deal closed, Azimuth gave three months worth of these payments to St. Luke’s then-attorney John Shasanmi to hold in escrow in case the new church was not finished in time, according to the lawsuit. However, the church claims that this was actually just a payment to Shasanmi to compensate him for making sure representatives from St. Luke signed the contract.

In February 2017, when it started to become clear that Azimuth would not complete the new church in time, Shasanmi and Azimuth drafted a new agreement saying that the church would start directly receiving its delay payments on May 1, 2017, along with an additional payment of more than $23,000 from Azimuth, the suit says. However, Shasanmi was “deep into the grips of a gambling addiction at the time” and gambled away the money he was supposed to give the church, according to court documents.

Shasanmi has since pled guilty to grand larceny for stealing $600,000 from the Second Providence Baptist Church, another Harlem church that did a deal with Azimuth, and was sentenced earlier in the year to between 1.5 and 4.5 years in prison.

It has now been more than two years since the new church was supposed to be finished, but the project is still not close to being done, and Subotovsky said in June that Azimuth would stop making delay payments going forward, according to the lawsuit.

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This has left St. Luke in a “dire financial situation that threatens the very existence of the church,” the suit says. It requests at least $20 million in relief, along with the appointment of a receiver to supervise construction of the new church and a court order halting construction on the site of the old church until the new one is finished.

The lawsuit’s lengthy description of the deal between St. Luke and Azimuth includes many biblically-themed headers, including “Azimuth Reaps the Benefits of the Conspiracy: What Happens When Lions Lay With Lambs,” “The Conspiracy Revealed: That Which is Done in the Dark Comes to the Light” and “Azimuth’s Attempt to Destroy a Harlem Institution: Guido’s Old Testament Vengeance.”

Don Tellock, attorney for the church, said all St. Luke wants is for Azimuth to fulfill its contract.

“It’s a tragic situation,” he said, “and I just hope that we can get justice for the church.”

Subotovsky said Azimuth has not stopped providing the church with delay payments, and he expects the firm to be done with construction on the new church and the new residential building in about 90 days.

“This is a frivolous attempt to potentially extract something above and beyond what they are entitled to from us,” he said. “Construction is ongoing and very near completion.”

“We have gone above and beyond on our end to try to keep the church comfortable and happy during what is always a trying experience,” he continued.

A previous version of this article indicated that Shasanmi was arrested for stealing $600,000 from St. Luke Baptist Church. He was arrested for stealing the money from Second Providence Baptist Church.